Israeli settler seeks to beat Netanyahu in primary

AFP , Monday 30 Jan 2012

Moshe Feiglin, a hard-line Jewish settler who opposes the idea of creation of a Palestinian state, says he could be an alternative to Netanyahu for Likud party leadership

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: AFP)

A hard-line Jewish settler who supports cash exit incentives to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is running against Israel's prime minister in Tuesday's party primary election.

Moshe Feiglin has little chance of defeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he could deliver an embarrassing blow to the country's leader in his fourth try for leadership of the Likud, none of which have had a realistic shot at success.

Experts say Feiglin could get a third of the vote in the closed party primary, reflecting the view of hard-liners that Netanyahu, despite his uncompromising worldwide, is not hawkish enough.

"I am providing an alternative," said Feiglin, 49. "The world expects ... much more than creating a terrorist country right in the heart of the land of the Bible," referring to a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Israeli nationalists believe the West Bank must remain under Israeli control for religious and security reasons. Though Netanyahu backed that view for years, his movement has edged toward compromise in recent years, and Netanyahu himself has accepted the concept of creation for a Palestinian state.

Feiglin founded a nationalist movement that blocked highway intersections around the country in 1995 to protest partial peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and he opposes further peace talks.

Feiglin proposes annexing the West Bank, retaking Gaza — Israel withdrew in 2005 — and bolstering a Jewish majority by offering emigration incentive packages of $350,000 to each Arab family in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Such extreme positions have the backing of a small but noisy minority of Israelis.

Netanyahu called the snap leadership primary in his Likud Party a year ahead of schedule, raising the possibility of an early general election later this year.

Netanyahu is so popular that no Likud Cabinet ministers or lawmakers dared challenge him, leaving Feiglin as the only other candidate.

Feiglin has steadily gained support over the last three times he has run for Likud party leadership — from winning 3.5 percent of the vote in his first campaign nine years ago, to scooping up nearly a quarter of the vote in 2007.

Analysts are divided about how the underdog would affect the ruling party.

Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the stronger Feiglin performs in the primaries, the more Netanyahu will strive to portray a moderate face to the party by endorsing less hawkish lawmakers around him, he said.

"It doesn't look like (Netanyahu) will give in to the extremists," Diskin said.

Analyst Yaron Ezrahi says if Feiglin wins more than 30 percent of the votes in the primaries, it could push the Likud party's base further right politically and weaken Netanyahu's claim that the ruling party represents the majority of the nation.

"It's very serious. It hurts the Likud's image," Ezrahi said. He called Feiglin's camp an "embarrassing minority" for Netanyahu.

Feiglin's expected gains in Tuesday's primaries come as religious nationalists are preparing for a showdown with the government over plans to evict the unauthorized Migron settlement, which the government says was built on unlawfully seized land from private Palestinian landowners in 2001.

Hard-line lawmakers are threatening to bolt Netanyahu's coalition if Migron is dismantled, and Feiglin's campaign could add more pressure to Netanyahu to find a solution that will satisfy the settlers.

"Netanyahu is fighting a war of survival. But there is no survival without a vision," said Feiglin. "He is losing credit."

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